The story of Helen of Troy can probably never be unravelled. It has both a political and a religious dimension, and has been passed down through a series of literary creations which haven’t had anything like an historical or religious purpose. Some clues have survived that make a glimpse into ancient times possible though, and that is worth the effort.
What follows is inspired by reading Bettany Hughes Helen of Troy: goddess, princess, whore (2005), and seeing her documentary of the same name (also 2005). At times I’ve gone off at a tangent, and she would probably think some of my conclusions were not scholarly, which they aren’t. I recommend anyone interested to find her book. It contains some stimulating reading.
The time is before the Trojan War, which ancient scholars calculated must have begun 1184 BC. There is archaeological evidence that the site of Troy was destroyed in what could have been a war in about 1250 BC.
The players were, firstly, the Hittites, whose 400 year old empire covered most of Anatolia and Asia Minor. About 1300 BC the Hittite emperor Muwatallis clashed with the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II at Kadesh in Syria. The conflict of these two super powers of the day weakened both, and Hittite power seems to have vanished after 1200 BC. As Hittite power weakened, it’s network of alliances with client kingdoms weakened also. One of these kingdoms was that of Troy, located in a key trading position at the mouth of the Dardanelles and extremely wealthy as a result. The Trojans were a Turkish people of Indo-European descent, whose language, culture and way of life was very similar to another Indo-European group of peoples, whom Homer calls the Achaeans, who settled in the Greek peninsula and islands.
At that period there was no Greece, and hence no Greeks. Each group of tribes that moved into the area saw themselves as a separate people with their own traditions. Most of the groups we know about settled in the northern Peloponnesus, in what became the classical poleis of Achaea, Peloponnesus and Argos. The culture these people evolved is similar to that of the ancient Celts, whose Irish hero, Finn MacCool, is celebrated in the Fianna cycle. The highest value in these cultures is success in battle, and the display and celebration of that success in rich apparel and bardic song. They were not effective as empire builders, and Homer’s poems reveal the amount of discord and rivalry there was between clan leaders. But they were good scavengers. One of the earliest groups to invade the Balkan peninsula took advantage of the earthquake that created the island of Thera and destroyed the Minoan hegemony in the Aegean in 1450 BC to pick off the major Minoan centres of power, including the cultic centre, Knossos. Now, 200 years later, they were a culture in decline themselves, but they saw an opportunity to raid the weakening outposts of the Hittites, including Troy.
Before the Trojan War there was trade, political negotiation, perhaps the hiring of mercenaries, between the Hittite power, its ally Troy, and Achaean poleis. To understand how this proceeded, some explanation of the way Achaean society was organised is necessary.
Political power and property was inherited through the female line. Aristocratic and royal males held and exercised political and military power, but they had to marry it to become legitimate. Female aristocrats and royalty, on the other hand, held a lot of religious power, and at one time might have held supreme power through their religious role. So in Mycenae, Aegisthos was disinherited of the kingdom when Clytemnestra married Agamemnon (and nursed a grudge accordingly). Succession was determined by clan precedence, not by geographical power base. In Sparta, the queen heiress Helen was betrothed to a Hittite prince according to a story told by Herodotus. This may have been the Paris/Alexander of Homer’s story. In terms of the mores of that society, this represented a claim by the Hittites of political power over mainland Greece. Not an attempt at conquest, but a request for favourable alignment in the politics of the day. As Hittite power began to wane, a rival candidate put himself forward, Menelaus of Mycenae. His brother Agamemnon had done very well for himself by marrying Clytemnestra and becoming king of Mycenae. Now Menelaus attempted the same consolidation by marrying Clytemnesta’s sister Helen. It was a blow in the face to the still dominant Hittite power, and guaranteed a fight, something the Achaeans would have looked forward to.
It is Homer who describes Helen as the most beautiful woman in the world. Perhaps he was exaggerating. Helen would still have been fought over had she had a big nose and frizzy hair. Helen’s story was one of political negotiation before it became a love story. In this respect it is relevant to remember that the story would have been passed down in song, as the deeds of the heroes were remembered. Over time, as invasion of Dorian tribes from the north followed one another, the language would have changed, and these songs would have been sung in an archaic language which eventually not many would have fully understood, leaving scope for Homer and his predecessors to elaborate creatively.
Helen’s function was not just that of a pawn exchanged between competing states. To understand her role more fully you have to look at the role of religion in ancient society, and the first thing to notice is that there is no clear delineation of boundaries as we are used to today. Because the gods are all around, ritual formed an integral part of public and private life. A religious ceremony might involve, therefore, state gods (such as a dramatic festival), city gods (the worship of a city founder), family gods (worship of ancestors), and a host of rituals we would regard as superstitious (oracles, auguries, charms, magic, dream divination).
The family of Tyndareus king of Sparta was human, but Tyndaeus’ wife Leda was visited by Zeus, the king of the Olympian gods. Later mythographers blithely recount how Zeus took the form of a swan, and Leda afterwards laid two eggs, though why intercourse with a swan would have changed her reproductive system is not explained. One egg contained divine progeny, one mortal. In this way Leda’s daughter Helen was a goddess, not a human being, and as a goddess she was worshipped in Sparta through classical times. This story is quite different to Homer’s, in which a human queen is seduced and abducted by Paris of Troy.
The two stories are not quite so contradictory once we realise they have been recast and retold in very different cultures over the centuries, with no awareness in later times of how earlier societies functioned. The Achaeans lived in the 13th century BC. Their way of life was interpreted by an 8th century poet, Homer, based on material in traditional songs in an archaic language. And Homer in turn was interpreted by scholars of the 2nd century who codified his references and explained them as well as they could. There was plenty of opportunity for misunderstanding.
In Homer, all the cast are gods, because they are all ancestors, and this uniformity of status helps to explain why some nominal gods, such as Aphrodite, are treated as human beings, while others, who are human, such as Achilles, are treated as gods, as determined by the dramatic structure of each scene depicted (Homer is the founder of ancient Greek drama).
In ancient Sparta Helen was queen, but she was also priestess. Much of her power was expressed through ritual which interceded with the gods. Here the swan, strangely enough, reappears. The swan in ancient mythology sang a beautiful song just before it died (swansong). The word swan is associated with singing in several cultures, including that of the Celts. Throughout Greek mythology there are echoes of a rite involving the underworld, the gaining of mystic knowledge from the gods, and the singing of that wisdom. Think of Orpheus, the Pythoness of Delphi – and Helen of Troy. It is probable that the priestess Helen in archaic Sparta made sacrifice, retreated to an isolated, closed place that was ritually pure, and when she emerged, sung her wisdom to those who could interpret it. This mystical kind of religion lasted throughout Greek culture, predated it, and in the form of the Eleusian Mysteries, influenced the emerging rituals of early Christianity.
Another kind of rite widespread in ancient societies but repudiated by later ones was sexual in nature. The queen priestess spoke with god, and she prayed for fertility in field and in womenfolk. Her role here involved public sexual intercourse with a male representing the god. This rite was gradually dropped from Greek religion, though it lasted till classical times in Corinth, but was much more prevalent in Syria and probably Troy. Although Helen might have practised ritual intercourse as part of her role as priestess, it is unlikely to have been with a visiting prince such as Paris. But conflation of two unfamiliar roles of Helen’s, sexual and political, might have resulted in the love story told in later times.
Helen had many suitors, but the most important were Paris and Menelaos. These represented, respectively, the peace party and the war party. Under consideration was whether to conciliate the still enormous power of the Hittites by an alliance with the royal house of Priam of Troy. Tyndareus of Sparta inclined to this approach, as did Helen. Troy represented not just the political power of the Hittites. It also meant riches, sophisticated civilization and lucrative trade for the relatively backward Achaeans. But the Atriadae of Mycenae thought otherwise. Agamemnon and Menelaos thought the Hittite fruit was ready for the plucking. They appealed to the warlike traditions of their people. At a clan meeting in which alliance with Sparta was also attempted, they carried the day. The war party had precedence.
But Helen had enormous power. She spoke for the gods. We don’t know the name of her god, but Homer assumed it was Aphrodite, whom in his time was one of the most powerful gods. And the gods told her to negotiate with Paris. It is likely her party went to Troy to do so. In her absence the militant party stirred up disaffection and spread stories of seduction and rape. Had Helen been present she could have toppled Agamemnon by persuading her sister Clytemnestra to repudiate him, something Clytemnestra did do eventually, as she saw her husband responsible not only for the death of her sister Helen but of her daughter Iphigeneia. The vote for war gave Agamemnon leadership of a loose federation of states hungry for plunder. It also forced Sparta onto the war side. Tyndareus might want to wait for Helen’s return from Troy, but once war was declared, Menelaos either had to ally himself with his brother or lose his kingdom, as he was king only while married to Helen. The choice was whether to stay neutral until Helen’s return, and suffer depredations from the other states of the war party, or join the war party, go in pursuit of Helen, and wipe out the dishonour her alleged seduction by Paris had caused him by killing her. This is the course he followed.
The next people to invade the Balkan peninsula from the north were the Dorians of about 1000 BC. Although we group all these tribes together as Indo-European, it must not be forgotten this is a term of linguistics: the existence of a common stock has been deduced from similarity in grammar roots within what traces of each language has survived. The Dorians would have seen the Achaeans as foreigners, just as the Achaeans saw the aboriginal stock they displaced, whom they called Pelagians, as foreigners. They found a society in ruins, who knew as much about their glorious past as monks in medieval France knew about Republican Rome, even though both groups preserved traditions and literature from earlier times.
Many things about the Achaeans needed explaining. The Dorians confined their women to the home; the Achaeans gave them freedom and religious power. Kings in Dorian society were war leaders; in Achaean society they were legitimised by marriage to the priestess queen. The language the people spoke was hard to understand, and the traditional songs would have needed an interpreter. The role of Helen would have been incomprehensible to the Dorians.
One thing they did understand was ancestor worship. The Dorians found prestige by claiming members of the Achaeans as ancestors. It helped that these Achaeans were physically different, tall, blue eyed with light brown hair which sometimes was golden brown or red. They were Steppe people in origin (cousins to Conan the Barbarian) and their height and colouring were remembered in classical depictions of the gods. To cement this claim of ancestry their bards got busy with the ancient tales they heard, in the incomprehensible language of the old people. The songs they sung were of course not history, but designed to honour the tribal leaders of the day by remembering the exploits of the alleged ancestors Herakles, Odysseus and Agamemnon. In the process the reputation of the queens priestesses, such as Leda and her daughter Helen, took a nose dive. But they acquired a new kind of reputation.
The Iliad can be regarded as the story of two gods, Helen and Achilles. Helen, through whom the power of Aphrodite worked to bewitch Paris, and Achilles, the agent of retribution. The power of the goddess has become the allure of the prostitute, just as it has in the Garden of Eden, where the Mistress of snakes, the queen priestess Eve, tempts Adam with the fruit and brings about the Fall of Man.
“…as Helen in all her radiance climbed the steps
to the bedroom under the high, vaulting roof.”
Paris: “Never has longing for you overwhelmed me so,
no, not even then, I tell you, that first time
when I swept you up from the lovely hills of Lacedaemon…”
(Fagles, Illiad, 3, 492-3, 518-20)
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.